Summary (Magill's Survey of World Literature, Revised Edition)
Starting with the novels Children of the Age and Segelfoss Town, Hamsun severely criticized the decline of traditional society and the problems associated with modernization. This critique was continued in Growth of the Soil, in which Hamsun both wanted to show the full extent of the evils of the modern age and to offer his portrait of modernity against the backdrop of the story of a heroic homesteader, Isak Sellanraa.
Like some of the outsiders in Hamsun’s novels from the 1890’s, Isak has no history when he appears in the wilderness, looking for a place to settle. Hamsun emphasizes that his presence is as natural as that of the wild animals of the area, and shows that his premodern approach to living is both healthier and more natural than a life based on a monetary economy. Isak works hard, clearing land and building shelter for himself and his farm animals with simple hand tools, and his work is portrayed as more authentic than the mechanized and highly capitalized alternative.
As Isak’s farm grows and prospers, he is able to attract a woman, Inger, whose harelip makes her willing to settle for the strong but physically unattractive homesteader. Inger bears two healthy sons, Eleseus and Sivert, but her third child is a girl with a harelip. Worried that the child will have a miserable life, Inger gives birth to her in secret and kills her before anyone sees her. While she is generally unsentimental, Inger...
(The entire section is 465 words.)
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Summary (Masterplots, Fourth Edition)
Isak leaves a small Norwegian village and sets out into the wilds to claim a homestead. Carrying some food and a few rude implements, he wanders until he finds a stretch of grass and woodland, with a stream nearby. There he clears the land. He has to carry everything he buys out from the village on his back. He builds a sod house, procures several goats, and prepares for winter.
He sends word by traveling Lapps that he needs a woman to help in the fields. One day, Inger appears with her belongings. She has a harelip and is not beautiful, but she is a good worker and shares Isak’s bed. She brings things from her home, including a cow.
That winter, Inger bears her first child, Eleseus. He is a fine boy, with no harelip. In the spring, Inger’s relative Oline comes to see the new family. She promises to return to take care of the farming in the fall, when Inger and Isak plan to go to town to be married and have the child baptized. The farm prospers through the summer.
The harvest is not good, but potatoes carry Isak’s family through the winter without hunger. Inger bears a second son, Sivert. Then Geissler, the sheriff’s officer, comes to tell Isak that he will have to pay the government for his land. He promises to make the terms as easy as possible. Geissler loses his position, however, and a new officer comes to look at the land with his assistant, Brede Olsen. He, too, promises to do what he can for Isak.
One day, Inger sends her husband to town. While he is gone, she bears her third child, a girl with a harelip. Knowing what the deformed child would suffer, Inger strangles the infant and buries the body in the woods. Later she convinces Isak she had not really been pregnant.
Oline, who knew that Inger was pregnant, finds the grave in the woods when she comes to the farm. Inger explains her deed as well as she can to Isak, and he is satisfied. When Lapp beggars tell the story of the hidden grave, the sheriff’s officer hears of it and there is an investigation and a trial. Inger is sent to prison at Bergen for eight years. Needing someone to help with the farm and the children, Isak hires Oline.
Isak gets the deed for his land and pays the first installment, but there is no joy in his farming now that Inger is gone. He works only from habit and necessity. Geissler comes to tell Isak that he has seen Inger in Bergen and that she has borne a girl in prison, a child without a blemish.
The old life is changing. Men come through to put up a telegraph line. Between Isak’s place and the village, Brede starts a farm. Other settlers appear as the years pass. Oline is unbearable. She steals livestock from Isak and spends his money for trifles. Speculating on copper mining, Geissler buys some of Isak’s land. With Geissler’s help, Inger, whose harelip has been operated on in Bergen, is finally released from prison. At first she is happy to...
(The entire section is 1196 words.)